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Origin of the Zodiac Signs

Author: Lena Santos

Simply defined, zodiac is that imaginary belt encircling the earth through which the sun, moon, and the planets pass during the year.
Webster Dictionary defined Zodiac as “an imaginary band on the celestial sphere of width 16 degrees, bounded by two circles equidistant from the ecliptic, within which are contained the paths of the sun, principal planets and moon, and which is divided into 12 equal parts, each named after a constellation, a figure showing the 12 parts with their symbols and emblems.”
To Oxford Dictionary “it means a belt of the heavens including all apparent positions of the sun, moon, and planets as known to ancient astronomers, and divided into 12 equal parts (signs of the Zodiac).”
Zodiac may also refer to the region of heavenly bodies (celestial sphere) encompassing the paths of the planets corresponding to the band of about eight arc degrees above and below the ecliptic, which is the sun’s visible path among the stars during the year.
As defined in astrology, zodiac means those signs that divide the sun’s path into twelve equal zones of celestial longitude, which is the angular distance of a celestial body especially among the ecliptic. On the other hand, zodiac as defined in astronomy is a group of fixed stars (constellations) that lines the sun’s path (ecliptic) across celestial bodies during the year. Therefore, zodiac is a celestial coordinate system or an ecliptic coordinate system as used in astronomy. Today, zodiac twelve signs are usually connected with the horoscopes, which predicts a person’s future based on a diagram showing the relative positions of the stars and planets at his or her birth.
Zodiac is derived from Latin zodiacus, which comes from the Greek word zodiakos kuklos, meaning a little animal, or circle or group of animals. The name Zodiac is a result of the fact that half of the signs of classical Greek zodiac are pictured as animals. In Greek zodiacal signs, four of them are represented by human personalities (Virgo, Gemini, Sagittarius, Aquarius), while the rest are animals (Aries, Taurus, Cancer, Leo, Scorpio, Capricorn, and fish) except Libra which is represented by scales.

In the early period, the Sumerian and Akkadian races of Mesopotamia originally developed the first original zodiac signs consisted of Taurus the bull, Cancer the crab, Virgo the moon goddess, Scorpio the scorpion, Capricorn the goat-man, and Pisces the fisherman. Aries the ram, Gemini the twins, Leo the lion, Libra the scales and Sagittarius the archer came later to become part of the zodiac. To complete the twelve signs of the zodiac, Aquarius the water bearer was added.

The origin of the zodiac has been traced back in Babylonia (Mesopotamian) and evolved slowly over the period 1300 BCE to 500 BCE. Originally, the Babylonians used them for calendar purposes or as season markers. Later on, the Babylonians adapted the use of the zodiacal system in astronomy, particularly in locating the position of the moon and the planets.

The zodiacal symbols or signs that we now know are inherited from the Greeks who borrowed the Babylonians zodiacal system and used them for their calendar as well as for astrological and astronomical purposes. These zodiacal signs have their roots in Greek mythology.

According to Greek mythology the animals representing the signs are honored by Zeus because of their great acts of heroism. The origin of Aries comes from the tale of the Golden Ram who sacrificed its life to save the life of Phrixius, son of Athamus by Nephele.

The sign of Taurus originated from the tale of the Bull and Europa who was violated by Zeus with the help of the bull. Gemini the twin stems from the Tale of Castor and Pollux the twin brothers who both died. The sign of Cancer and Leo originated from one of the 12 trials of Heracles. Virgo’s origin stems from the Tale of Pandora. Libra is the scale that balances justice.

The sign of Scorpio comes from the Tale of Orion who was killed by the giant Orion. The sign of Sagittarius is representative of the centaur, Cheiron who died to set free Prometheus. The sign of Capricorn represents the goat Amalthea who fed the infant Zeus. The sign of Aquarius comes from the Tale of the Deucallion Flood. Pisces represents the goddess of love and beauty.

While Greek zodiac signs are partly humans and partly animals, the Chinese zodiac is purely represented by twelve animals. At present, the Greek zodiacal signs or symbols are mostly used in horoscopic astrology.

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